Tragedy: An Overview

      Tragedy usually focuses on figures of stature whose fall implicates others--a family, an entire group, or even a whole society--and typically the tragic protagonist becomes isolated from his or her society (Phedre's "outcast and fugitive from all" would suit Lear and Hamlet as well).

      In tragedy, life goes on; in comedy, life goes onward and upward. In the tragic vision, the possibility of a happy ending is unrealized, although it is sometimes suggested, as when Lear is briefly reconciled to Cordelia. When tragedy pauses to look at comedy, it views such a happy ending as an aborted or by-passed possibility. At best, it acknowledges "what might have been" as an ironic way of magnifying "tragic waste." Tragedy tends to exclude comedy. In the tragic vision, something or someone dies or lapses into a winter of discontent.

The "Tragic Vision"

      In tragedy, there seems to be a mix of seven interrelated elements that help to establish what we may call the "Tragic Vision":
  • The conclusion is catastrophic.
  • The catastrophic conclusion will seem inevitable.
  • It occurs, ultimately, because of the human limitations of the protagonist.
  • The protagonist suffers terribly.
  • The protagonist's suffering often seems disproportionate to his or her culpability.
  • Yet the suffering is usually redemptive, bringing out the noblest of human capacities for learning.
  • The suffering is also redemptive in bringing out the capacity for accepting moral responsibility.

The Catastrophic Conclusion

      In tragedy, unlike comedy, the denouement tends to be catastrophic; it is perceived as the concluding phase of a downward movement. In comedy, the change of fortune is upward; the happy ending prevails (more desirable than true, says Northrop Frye in the Anatomy of Criticism), as obstacles are dispelled and the hero and/or heroine are happily incorporated into society or form the nucleus of a new and better society. In tragedy, there is the unhappy ending--the hero's or heroine's fall from fortune and consequent isolation from society, often ending in death.

The Sense of Inevitability

      To the audience of a tragedy, the catastrophe will seem, finally, to be inevitable. Although tragedy can not simply be identified with uncontrollable disasters, such as an incurable disease or an earthquake, still there is the feeling that the protagonist is inevitably caught by operating forces which are beyond his control (sometimes like destiny, visible only in their effects). Whether grounded in fate or nemesis, accident or chance, or in a causal sequence set going through some action or decision initiated by the tragic protagonist himself or herself, the operating forces assume the function of a distant and impersonal power.

Human Limitation, Suffering, and Disproportion

      Ultimately, perhaps, all the instances that we find in tragedy of powerlessness, of undeniable human limitations, derive from the tragic perception of human existence itself, which seems, at least in part, to be terrifyingly vulnerable, precarious, and problematic. And it is precisely because of these human limitations that suffering also becomes basic to the tragic vision. Tragedy typically presents situations that emphasize vulnerability, situations in which both physical and spiritual security and comforts are undermined, and in which the characters are pressed to the utmost limits--overwhelming odds, impossible choices, demonic forces within or without (or both). Against the tragic protagonist are the powers that be, whether human or divine, governed by fate or chance, fortune or accident, necessity or circumstance, or any combination of these. The more elevated, the more apparently secure and privileged the character's initial situation, the greater is our sense of the fall, of the radical change of fortune undergone, and the greater our sense of his or her suffering. Tragedy testifies to suffering as an enduring, often inexplicable force in human life.

      In the suffering of the protagonists, there is frequently, something disproportionate. Even to the extent that there is some human cause, the eventual consequences may seem too severe. In Lear's case, we may or may not agree that he is "more sinned against than sinning," but Cordelia certainly is. This inequity is particularly profound for some of those who surround the protagonists, those who seem to bear (at worst) minor guilt, the so-called "tragic victims."

The Learning Process and Acceptance of Moral Responsibility

      Despite the inevitable catastrophe, the human limitation, the disproportionate suffering, the tragic vision also implies that suffering can call forth human potentialities, can clarify human capacities, and that often there is a learning process that the direct experience of suffering engenders--Lear and Phedre are transformed by it. Gloucester may think that we are to the gods as flies to wanton boys--"they kill us for their sport"--but such a conception of brutal slaughter is alien to the tragic vision. Indeed, tragedy provides a complex view of human heroism, a riddle mixed of glory and jest, nobility and irony. The madness that is wiser than sanity, the blind who see more truly than the physically sighted, are recurring metaphors for the paradox of tragedy, which shows us human situations of pitiful and fearful proportions, but also of extraordinary achievement.

      For tragedy presents not only human weakness and precarious security and liability to suffering, but also its nobility and greatness. Tragedies do not occur to puppets. While the "tragic victim" is one of the recurring character types of tragedy (Cordelia, Ophelia, Desdemona, Andromaque, Hippolytus, and even, perhaps, Richard II and Phedre), tragic protagonists more frequently have an active role, one which exposes not only their errors of judgment, their flaws, their own conscious or unwitting contribution to the tragic situation, but which also suggests their enormous potentialities to endure or survive or transcend suffering, to learn what "naked wretches" feel, and to attain a complex view of moral responsibility.

      The terrifying difficulty of accepting moral responsibility is an issue in Hamlet as well as in Sophocles' Antigone or Oedipus Tyrannus. It is an issue in all tragedy, even when the moral status of the protagonist(s) is not admirable. Whatever Aristotle's hamartia is, it is not necessarily moral culpability, although it may be, as the case of Macbeth illustrates. Tragic vision insists upon man's responsibility for his actions. This is the essential element of the vision that permits us to deny access to its precincts to puppets, who, by definition, have neither free will nor ultimate responsibility for their existence. Tragedy acknowledges the occasional disproportion between human acts and their consequences, but imposes or accepts responsibility nevertheless. In this way, pain and fear are spiritualized as suffering, and, as Richard Sewall suggests in .us The Vision of Tragedy, the conflict of man and his "destiny" is elevated to ultimate magnitude.

      One of the conventions discerned and analyzed by Aristotle was that the change of fortune, peripety or reversal, experienced by the tragic hero, should be accompanied by anagnorisis or cognitio, "discovery" or "recognition." The conditions and the degree of this discovery vary considerably. It may even be relatively absent from the protagonists's awareness, as we have noted. But it is almost always central to the audience's responses. In the school of suffering we are all students, witnessing, like Lear, essential, "unaccomodated" man, and we become caught up in an extended discovery, not only of human limitation, but also of human potentiality.

Adapted from A Guide to the Study of Literature: A Companion Text for Core Studies 6, Landmarks of Literature, ©English Department, Brooklyn College.

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